Theresa May has insisted she will not shy away from raising human rights with China’s leaders on a three-day trip designed to drum up trade and investment as Britain prepares for Brexit.
The Prime Minister has characterised her visit at the head of the largest business delegation of her time in office as a sign of her Government “reaching out to the world” to secure jobs and prosperity at home.
She left no doubt that she wants to strike a formal free trade agreement with China after Brexit, but said there were steps which could be taken now to remove barriers to commerce.
As she arrived in the central Chinese city of Wuhan – home to more students than any other city in the world – she announced a range of new educational initiatives linking the UK with the Far Eastern economic giant.
Theresa and Philip watch a Chinese opera acrobat at the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
But she sounded a note of caution about President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative to establish overland transport links between China and Europe, which some investors believe could be a goldmine for Western construction companies.
While recognising that the Belt and Road could potentially offer “huge” opportunities to businesses from outside China, she added: “What I would like to see is ensuring that we have transparency and international standards being adhered to and I will be discussing that with my Chinese interlocutors.”
Mrs May promised to raise UK business concerns about over-production of steel and the need for more protection for Western company’s intellectual property against the piracy for which China is notorious.
And she said she would raise concerns with Mr Xi about Hong Kong, where more than 100 democracy activists have been detained in protests against alleged encroachment on the partial automony granted the former colony after its handover by the UK in 1997.
“I will be raising both human rights and the issue of Hong Kong,” Mrs May told reporters travelling with her to China. “We believe that the future of Hong Kong – that `One Country, Two Systems’ future – is important and we are committed to that.
“I’ve raised this in the past with President Xi and he has shown commitment to that, but I will continue to raise it with them.”
Although EU rules prevent a free trade deal until after the UK’s withdrawal, Mrs May said there was work that can be done now on improving links.
“China is a country that we want to do a trade deal with,” said the Prime Minister.
“But I think there is more that we could be doing in the interim and doing right now in terms of looking at potential barriers to trade and the opening up of markets to ensure British businesses are able to do good trade into China.”
Among the educational initiatives being announced in Wuhan were an extension to 2020 of an exchange scheme which will see almost 200 English maths teachers visit China, a new “English is Great” campaign to promote English language learning and an agreement on joint training of pre-school staff.
Deals totalling more than £550 million are expected to create more than 800 jobs in the UK. They include a £75 million agreement for Staffordshire-based childcare company Busy Bees to open 20 nurseries in China – an expansion Mrs May first heard about when visiting one of their centres in her Maidenhead constituency.
Mrs May said: “I want to step up our relationship with China as it opens up its markets, spreads its prosperity and embraces free trade.
“And I want to see that this happens in a way that protects our values, ensures global security and advances the multi-cultural system and the rules for which we have fought so hard.”
She added: “The UK and China will not always see eye to eye. But as partners committed to global free trade, we can work together to confront and tackle challenges that affect all of our economies.
“So we will continue to look at what more can be done to tackle global over-capacity in sectors such as steel, and to ensure that as our companies innovate and develop new products, they are confident that their intellectual property and rights will be fully protected.”
US president Donald Trump threatened to overshadow Mrs May’s trip with an outspoken attack on China in his State of the Union address.
Mr Trump said: “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.
“In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defence.”